Hawkwind, closing Day One
May 1, 2023

WORDS AND PHOTOS: Paul Whimpenny (Day One), Graeme Stroud (Day Two)

Taking place at the Indigo venue, nestled inside the O2 Arena complex in London, the weekend-long Prognosis festival’s bill certainly had the looks of an eclectic affair, with bands ranging from household names right down to the ‘most people will be curious’ level. Velvet Thunder was keen to make sure the event was covered, so our roving reporters Paul Whimpenny and Graeme Stroud were dispatched to check out the Saturday and Sunday respectively…

SATURDAY

Day one of the London edition of the Prognosis 2023 Festival was blessed with some fantastic music. Headlining were Space Rock legends Hawkwind. Most of the other bands on day one were in the prog-metal or post-rock category. It was a good line-up, though admittedly to these old ears it seemed a little bizarre to not see any bands in the classic prog ‘Yes-Genesis-Floyd’ tradition appearing on a festival so named!

Things kicked off gently mid-afternoon with a solo slot from Mariana Semkina, the female half of Russian unit Iamthemorning (that took to the same second stage later in the evening). I say ‘second stage’ but in reality it was little more than a corner passageway between the bar and toilets on the mezzanine level. Sadly, this meant no more than a couple of dozen people could actually see Semkina singing. There again just being able to hear her crystalline voice was more than enough for the appreciative audience. The folk-like Mermaid Song from her 2020 solo album Sleepwalking was a highlight, and she followed that one with a beautiful new song which Semkina indicated she had written at the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Astronoid, easing things in gently…

In stark contrast to the delicacy of Mariana Semkina, the main stage was baptised by American post-rock/power-metal group Astronoid who woke everyone up with some fierce riffing in an all too brief set based around excellent material from last year’s Radiant Bloom release. Human was the standout track along with their signature song Up And Atom. It was all one-paced (very fast) and there was not much in the way of subtlety but the band’s commitment and energy was very impressive. 

I confess that I was not expecting much from Swedish outfit pg.lost. They describe their own music as ‘Swedish experimental instrumentalism’ which, having listened to some of the band’s material on streaming services, I would say is a grandiose way of saying they play post-rock! But, put these guys on stage, and it’s a different experience altogether than the living room. The pleasantly listenable material I heard on my hifi at home was transformed into a fierce and visceral wall of sound in the live environment. On stage, Mattias Bhatt looked the archetypal long-haired guitar hero, but eyes were mostly drawn to the (short-haired Paul Weller lookalike) bassist/keyboardist/singer Kristian Karlsson. He seemed like some modern-day Phil Lynott with his bass slung low like the Thin Lizzy legend. Pg.lost’s songs do not have lyrics but instead Karlsson vocalises at key moments, using his voice as a potent extra weapon in the band’s armoury. One great song followed another in this irresistible set, concluding with the fabulous Terrain. The group later did an entertaining Q&A session (on the second stage) where Bhatt confessed that they get inundated by mails from singers asking them to add lyrics. The band claimed that there was more freedom without lyrics and that it forced them to catch emotions in other ways. That’s fair enough, but I couldn’t help thinking that they are cutting off their nose to spite their face by holding that position. Since the latest new music from the group was back in 2020 (the Oscillate album), they were also prodded about when a new album might be coming out. Sadly, they confessed they are not presently working on anything, mainly due to distance issues since Mattias Bhatt lives in Cyprus. 

pg.lost.

The second Q&A session of the day was for Einar Solberg, prior to his slot on stage, where the gently spoken Norwegian spoke about and took questions on his upcoming debut release, 16. I don’t know Solberg’s life story, but he referred obliquely to hard times in his teenage years and that these hard times are the main theme of the album. Inevitably there were questions about balancing time and material between solo work and Leprous, the prog-metal band that Solberg leads and sings for. He didn’t see this as a problem and interestingly he admitted that it was always himself that pushed the Leprous band members to record new material.

I confess that the music of Leprous leave me a little bit cold, and I was fearful that we would just get a watered-down version of the mothership’s sound from Solberg. The music did have some overtones of Leprous, but to these ears it seemed that the prog-metal elements were stripped back and instead there was a more intense and emotional prog feel, very much in the Peter Hammill mode. The music certainly switched between light and shade, reaching some intense climaxes that Hammill would have been proud to have penned. We’ve all heard plenty of singers that sound great on record but are then not so great live, but if anything, Solberg was even more impressive live. His vocal range was extraordinary and it’s beyond me how he effortlessly shifted between the Jimmy Somerville style high falsetto and the growling Robert Plant style within the same song. It was remarkable. He also oozed charisma and dominated the stage totally.  He was supported by some fabulous musicians including Ben Levin on guitar (who for some bizarre reason was wearing a sleeveless puffer on stage!) and Ari Bragi Karason on trumpet and keyboards. Solberg didn’t introduce the songs so apart from the three singles (Grotto, A Beautiful Life, and the fabulous Over The Top), it was all new and mysterious material for the audience that presumably we will get to hear when the new album is released in June. It was all excellent though, with the standout being the closing climatic song (The Glass Is Empty, I believe).  There was an ecstatic reception at the end which is incredible considering it was mostly new material. I was left scratching my head to think of the last I came across a band playing such compelling debut material and I had to go as far back as Marillion at the Marquee to recall a band making such a powerful first impact on me. 

How do you follow that, many might have thought. Well, the answer can only be with something completely different and that’s what we got with the musical light and shade of Solberg replaced by hypnotic pounding rhythms of Hawkwind, and lyrically Solberg’s cries of human anguish replaced by Hawkwind’s more global questions of whether there is life in space, or whether there’s any future for our damaged Earth. And with Hawkwind we got one of their legendary visual shows too of course: lights, haze machines, lasers, backdrop films; a whole feast for the eyes. There were times when the band members were barely visible, as if they’d been absorbed into the light show.

Somewhere here, Hawkwind are playing The Golden Void…

And accompanying this spectacular light show was a fantastic selection of songs – a set list that Hawkwind fans would die for – starting off with Levitation that rumbled along like a mean juggernaut. It must have been all of ten minutes long as it went through the classic Hawkwind format of riff-jam-riff. That was the format that was favoured throughout the night, meaning we got just ten songs in the ninety-minute slot, but all delivered in that epic style.

Levitation was followed by two brilliant (but not so frequently played) tracks from Hall Of The Mountain Grill in the form of You’d Better Believe It and Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear In Smoke). Two new band members – Timothy Lewis on keyboards and Doug MacKinnon on bass – allowed Magnus Martin to play just guitar, allowing the rhythm and energy of the songs to be maintained even during a solo. Brock, now in his customary glasses and baseball cap, was in good form and his voice still strong. Next up was Arrival In Utopia which didn’t quite match the brilliance of the opening trio, but was still streets ahead of the weak-sounding studio version on Choose Your Masques. As often happens, there wasn’t much banter with the audience, although in the case of Arrival In Utopia, as the song closed with Brock saying there’s no more utopia for us, MacKinnon quipped ‘maybe it’s in Devon’ (which is where Brock lives).

With a new album, The Future Never Waits, soon to be released and already reviewed by Velvet Thunder, expectations were high that new material would be showcased. Rama (The Prophecy) is to these ears the standout track on the album, and it was great to hear it here. It sounded even more powerful than the studio version and Brock’s voice was certainly clearer too.  While Rama (The Prophecy) would have been familiar to the audience since it’s already been made available as a single, the second track from The Future Never Waits called The Beginning would have been new to most listeners. As a rather low-key mix of ambient and acoustic work this was a surprise choice, but its lighter tone seemed to fit well into the scheme of things, following on as it did from five heads-down space rock boogies.   

Brock then brought us back into ‘70s territory with Spirit Of The Age and an outstanding version of Assault And Battery / The Golden Void. Lewis’ keyboards seemed a bit low in the mix sometimes, but he came into his own here as the keys swelled gloriously in The Golden Void, supplemented by some nice bluesy guitar from Martin. This was probably the highlight of the whole show, also visually. Right To Decide from the Electric Teepee album brought us back to familiar Hawkwind riffing and that was just a warm-up for a blistering version of Brainstorm to close this memorable performance and to close the first day of Prognosis 2023 Festival in London.

SUNDAY

Day two was headlined by Riverside from Poland, and although I was not familiar with their material, I had been hearing great things, so expectations were high. Before that though, the music kicked off up at the second stage with the excellent French three-piece Lizzard. They bill themselves as art-rock, although they fit comfortably into the prog genre for me, opening their set with The Decline, featuring a challenging rhythm in 6/8 time, with both the drum pattern and vocal line cutting across the guitar chords in a complex interplay. They briefly said ‘Hi’ after a couple of numbers, before launching into Haywire, which alternates between 7/8 and a straight 4/4. It augured well for a great festival day, although as previously mentioned, only a privileged few could see the band. Front man Mathieu Ricou threatened that they were going to get us to work, or more specifically to dance, and they powered up with the thudding, chunky four-to-the-floor rhythm of Blowdown, highly reminiscent of Muse, but I’m pretty sure they scrolled through virtually every time signature known to man in an excellent set. Chatting to festival-goers later on, Katy Elwell’s superb drumming was picked out as one of the highlights of the day.

Scurrying downstairs, I found that the opening band on the main stage, the highly individual screaming metalcore London band Ithaca, had already started. With front-woman Djamilia Azzouz screaming death-grunt vocals interspersed with melodic interludes, and most other members of the band capable of adding to the growl chorus, the barrage of sound was formidable, even if the lyrical message was lost somewhat. Fortunately, guitarist Sam Chetan-Welsh was on hand towards the end of the set to announce in surprisingly clear and cultured tones that the band is ‘about more than just music. Our current album They Fear Us is about healing from trauma’. A quick check on their website affirms that it covers such subjects as eating disorders and body hatred, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was a supportive and upbuilding message that kind of made sense of the anger and energy they put into their performance – which also, incidentally, featured one of the most amusing moments of the day, when Djamilla admitted she’s not that good at on-stage banter, and encouraged the audience to imagine she’s just said something really funny. A whole section of the standing fans immediately burst out laughing, which made me smile too, so good job everyone! Then it was back to the screaming and feedback.

Sylvaine

Following Ithaca on the main stage was petite Norwegian Kathrine Shepard a.k.a. Sylvaine, replete with her waist-length cascade of Goldilocks hair, and pan-European band in their first-ever London performance. They walked on to an ambient folk-rock intro, and looked for all the world as if that was what they were going to play, but how wrong can you be – their set was more varied for sure, but contained enough hard-hitting black metal to give Ithaca a run for their money. The song titles were mainly Norwegian, although Sylvaine was kind enough to interpret: Fortapt roughly translates as ‘Forsaken’, and involved a mix of etherally high, folky vocals interspersed with black metal snarling, mostly from her bassist, but some from the elven mouth of Kathrine herself. The title of Mono No Aware is apparently Japanese, and she said it’s the heaviest thing she has ever written, in terms of the sentiments expressed  – and without a doubt, it was a crashing wall of hard, heavy metal, complete with co-ordinated head-banging from her and the band. The highlight of their set, and extraordinarily powerful stuff.

After that, it was another energetic run up several flights of stairs for the intriguing O.R.k. (observe the correct capitalisation please). An international supergroup of sorts, the four-piece comprises two Italians: vocalist, producer, and film score composer Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari on vocals, and jazz maestro Carmelo Pipitone from Marta Sui Tubi on guitars, ex-Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin from the UK, and King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto from the USA behind the kit. Once again completely invisible due to the geographical layout of the second stage, it was Pipitone’s guitars that really caught the ear – a mass of heavily synthesized tones, the solos consisted of some clearly excellent playing hiding behind a barrage of squeaks and electronica. That fusion of euro-prog and futuristic synths made for an entertaining half-hour.

Rosalie Cunningham – Glam meets Prog…

There was one more trip to the second stage to come, but for now it was downstairs again for a visual and aural treat with Southend’s Rosalie Cunningham and her band of retro-hippies. Rosalie herself, dressed like a sequinned glam-rocker, has a quite tremendous contralto voice with an operatic quality; her partner and lead guitarist Rosco Wilson, waistcoated and hatted, toted a vintage Les Paul custom. Most impressive perhaps, was red-haired bassist Claudia Gonzalez Diaz, sporting a silver lamé cape that would have had Rick Wakeman running for cover, and playing a 1973 Ovation Magnum bass (so I’m told), one of the most beautiful instruments I have ever seen. What about the music, I hear you say? Well, difficult to describe, it too had a distinctly retro quality, melodically complex, with a foot and at least two toes in the experimental folk-rock camp of 1970. Imagine some of Queen’s more quirky outings – Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy or Good Company, with a large spoonful of Jethro Tull stirred in, and you’d be in the right ballpark – the second number was almost pure Queen, even down to the title, Ride On My Bike! Many of the numbers started with a quasi-classical intro from Aaron Bolli-Thompson on the piano, making him for me the keyboard player of the day. Tristitia Amnesia from their current album Two Piece Puzzle was also a contender for best number of the day – it started slowly and ominously enough, but built into a King Crimson-proggy epic performance that was one of the highlights for sure.

Soen

A bit of a lull now, waiting for the next act, and I realised what had been plaguing me all day: the recorded music playing between bands, which is all black metal and death growls. I don’t mind a bit of Black, Doom or Death in moderation, and was happy to see Ithaca and Sylvaine featured, as I’d be unlikely to experience them otherwise, but by the time I had sat through seven or eight helpings of it, I must admit it was starting to wear thin, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what the prog crowd had come to hear. Never mind, it was soon time for highly-rated Swedish outfit Soen, with an hour of music selected from their epic Atlantis from 2022; Baptiste Gautier’s drumkit from the previous band was wheeled offstage on a plinth and one about twice as big wheeled on. With a string quartet and backing singer, the utterly superb Diana Kantner, there were no less than ten people on stage the whole time. For me, this was the most accomplished band of the day; lanky front man Joel Ekelöf stalked the stage in a formal suit, with confidence and undeniable charisma, and guitarists Cody Lee Ford and Lars Åhlund were certainly two of the most accomplished axe-men on display. With Martín López on drums and Oleksii Kobel on bass, this was the kind of combo you could hire to play the soundtrack of a Disney movie, or be the house band on Strictly Come Dancing; it was difficult to imagine any of them ever making a mistake or mis-cueing a note. Nevertheless, every track was a power ballad, each impressive enough individually, but I was left wishing they would either rock out occasionally, of strip the band back to a voice and an acoustic guitar, just for a bit of variation – nevertheless, Modesty, with its screaming wah solo from Åhlund, was a clear highlight of their set.

Riverside: Mariusz Duda implores Graeme Stroud to give him a good review…

Talking of which, it was back upstairs to see Ross Jennings from Haken doing his solo act with an acoustic guitar, a prairie coat and a leather Stetson. He introduced himself with, ‘I know what you’re thinking – the country festival is next week, right?’ Nevertheless, he says that his debut album, A Shadow Of My Future Self, was a ‘failed country album – it turned out to be more prog-pop’, thus explaining his presence. We didn’t mind, he has an easy-going manner and a great voice, clear and powerful in the Tim Buckley vein, and his 45-minute set went down a treat with the crowd. Strolling back down to watch the headline act, it’s clear that someone had been taking the organisers to task, as I could hear Buddy Holly being played, followed by the Andrews Sisters and songs from the musicals. Still not prog, but a much more relaxing way to pass the few minutes before Riverside came on, the only act to be allowed a full, concert-length set and an encore to boot.

As mentioned, Riverside was a new band to me, and I wasn’t totally convinced to start with – they opened with Addicted and Panic Room, both good numbers, but despite the nice bass lines and melodic chordage, basically four-to-the-floor pop-rock. I was put in mind of Level 42, who had masses of talent and potential for sure, but always seemed to me to reduce every song to basic disco. Still, there was a great theatrical moment when the band stopped dead in their tracks and kept absolutely still for 30 seconds – perfectly executed – and I should have had more faith I guess, as the third number was an absolute tour de force, prog-rock on an epic scale – this was the Rush-esque Landmine Blast from their current album ID.Entity, with it’s brain-twisting time signature and driving drums. Big Tech Brother kept up that blistering standard, and it wasn’t long before I had Mariusz Duda and Mitloff pegged as my bassist and drummer of the festival. Keyboard player Michał Łapaj was getting some beautiful fat tones out of his synth, with touring guitarist Maciej Meller, recently promoted to a full member of the band, playing a great, bluesy intro to prog ballad Left Out. In truth, they play to the more commercial side of prog rock, which was all to the good, as the crowd were lapping it up, especially the Marillion-influenced Past Truth; I spoke to a guy before the show who was there basically just to see this band. I was convinced anyway, and next time I can find a record shop, I will be looking out for releases by Riverside and Rosalie Cunningham. In fact, every band had some great exposure and won a lot of fans I’m sure, and I wish them all the best.

Riverside, closing the festival in style